Face Value: Eyebrows

In Face Value: The Irresistible Influence of First Impressions, Princeton professor of psychology Alexander Todorov delves into the science of first impressions. Throughout the month of May, we’ll be sharing examples of his research. 



It is easier to recognize Richard Nixon when his eyes are removed than when his eyebrows are removed from the image. Our intuitions about what facial features are important are insufficient at best and misleading at worst.


Based on research reported in

  1. Sadr, I. Jarudi, and P. Sinha (2003). “The role of eyebrows in face recognition.” Perception 32, 285–293.


Face Value: Can you recognize the celebrities?

In Face Value: The Irresistible Influence of First Impressions, Princeton professor of psychology Alexander Todorov delves into the science of first impressions. Throughout the month of May, we’ll be sharing examples of his research. 




A: Justin Bieber and Beyoncé



The Great Mother—Jackets throughout the years

Goddess, monster, gate, pillar, tree, moon, sun, vessel, and every animal from snakes to birds: the maternal has been represented throughout history as both nurturing and fearsome, a primordial image of the human psyche. In celebration of Mother’s Day, we dipped into the archives for a tour of the various covers of a landmark book, Erich Neumann’s The Great Mother.

Face Value: Who is more likely to have committed a violent crime?

In Face Value: The Irresistible Influence of First Impressions, Princeton professor of psychology Alexander Todorov delves into the science of first impressions. Throughout the month of May, we’ll be sharing examples of his research. 




The face on the right was manipulated to be perceived as more criminal looking and the face on the left as less criminal looking.

Note that these immediate impressions need not be grounded in reality. They are our visual stereotypes of what constitutes criminal appearance. Note also the large number of differences between the two faces: shape, color, texture, individual features, placement of individual features, and so on. Yet we can easily identify global characteristics that differentiate these faces. More masculine appearance makes a face appear more criminal. In contrast, more feminine appearance makes a face appear less criminal. But keep in mind that it is impossible to describe all the variations between the two faces in verbal terms.

Based on research reported in

  1. Funk, M. Walker, and A. Todorov (2016). “Modeling perceived criminality and remorse in faces using a data-driven computational approach.” Cognition & Emotion, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/02699931.2016.1227305.



Alexander Todorov on the science of first impressions

TodorovWe make up our minds about others after seeing their faces for a fraction of a second—and these snap judgments predict all kinds of important decisions. For example, politicians who simply look more competent are more likely to win elections. Yet the character judgments we make from faces are as inaccurate as they are irresistible; in most situations, we would guess more accurately if we ignored faces. So why do we put so much stock in these widely shared impressions? What is their purpose if they are completely unreliable? In Face Value, Alexander Todorov, one of the world’s leading researchers on the subject, answers these questions as he tells the story of the modern science of first impressions. Here he responds to a few questions about his new book.

What inspired you to write this book?

AT: I have been doing research on how people perceive faces for more than 10 years. Typically, we think of face perception as recognizing identity and emotional expressions, but we do much more than that. When we meet someone new, we immediately evaluate their face and these evaluations shape our decisions. This is what we informally call first impressions. First impressions pervade everyday life and often have detrimental consequences. Research on first impressions from facial appearance has been quite active during the last decade and we have made substantive progress in understanding these impressions. My book is about the nature of first impressions, why we cannot help but form impressions, and why these impressions will not disappear from our lives.

In your book, you argue that first impressions from facial appearance are irresistible. What is the evidence?

AT: As I mentioned, the study of first impressions has been a particularly active area of research and the findings have been quite surprising. First, we form impressions after seeing a face for less than one-tenth of a second. We decide not only whether the person is attractive but also whether he or she is trustworthy, competent, extroverted, or dominant. Second, we agree on these impressions and this agreement emerges early in development. Children, just like adults, are prone to using face stereotypes. Third, these impressions are consequential. Unlucky people who appear “untrustworthy” are more likely to get harsher legal punishments. Those who appear “trustworthy” are more likely to get loans on better financial terms. Politicians who appear more “competent” are more likely to get elected. Military personnel who appear more “dominant” are more likely to achieve higher ranks. My book documents both the effortless nature of first impressions and their biasing effects on decisions.

The first part of your book is about the appeal of physiognomy—the pseudoscience of reading character from faces. Has not physiognomy been thoroughly discredited?

AT: Yes and no. Most people today don’t believe in the great physiognomy myth that we can read the character of others from their faces, but the evidence suggests that we are all naïve physiognomists: forming instantaneous impressions and acting on these impressions. Moreover, fueled by recent research advances in visualizing the content of first impressions, physiognomy appears in many modern disguises: from research papers claiming that we can discern the political, religious, and sexual orientations of others from images of their faces to private ventures promising to profile people based on images of their faces and offering business services to companies and governments. This is nothing new. The early 20th century physiognomists, who called themselves “character analysts,” were involved in many business ventures. The modern physiognomists are relying on empirical and computer science methods to legitimize their claims. But as I try to make clear in the book, the modern claims are as far-stretched as the claims of the old physiognomists. First, different images of the same person can lead to completely different impressions. Second, often our decisions are more accurate if we completely ignore face information and rely on common knowledge.

You mentioned research advances that visualize the content of first impressions. What do you mean?

AT: Faces are incredibly complex stimuli and we are inquisitively sensitive to minor variations in facial appearance. This makes the study of face perception both fascinating and difficult. In the last 10 years, we have developed methods that capture the variations in facial appearance that lead to specific impressions such as trustworthiness. The best way to illustrate the methods is by providing visual images, because it is impossible to describe all these variations in verbal terms. Accordingly, the book is richly illustrated. Here is a pair of faces that have been extremely exaggerated to show the variations in appearance that shape our impressions of trustworthiness.


Most people immediately see the face on the left as untrustworthy and the face on the right as trustworthy. But notice the large number of differences between the two faces: shape, color, texture, individual features, placement of individual features, and so on. Yet we can easily identify global characteristics that differentiate these faces. Positive expressions and feminine appearance make a face appear more trustworthy. In contrast, negative expressions and masculine appearance make a face appear less trustworthy. We can and have built models of many other impressions such as dominance, extroversion, competence, threat, and criminality. These models identify the contents of our facial stereotypes.

To the extent that we share face stereotypes that emerge early in development, isn’t it possible that these stereotypes are grounded in our evolutionary past and, hence, have a kernel of truth?

AT: On the evolutionary scale, physiognomy has a very short history. If you imagine the evolution of humankind compressed within 24 hours, we have lived in small groups during the entire 24 hours except for the last 5 minutes. In such groups, there is abundant information about others coming from first-hand experiences (like observations of behavior and interactions) and from second-hand experiences (like testimonies of family, friends, and acquaintances). That is for most of human history, people did not have to rely on appearance information to infer the character of others. These inferences were based on much more reliable and easily accessible information. The emergence of large societies in the last few minutes of the day changed all that. The physiognomists’ promise was that we could handle the uncertainty of living with strangers by knowing them from their faces. It is no coincidence that the peaks of popularity of physiognomists’ ideas were during times of great migration. Unfortunately, the physiognomists’ promise is as appealing today as it was in the past.

Are there ways to minimize the effects of first impressions on our decisions?

AT: We need to structure decisions so that we have access to valid information and minimize the access to appearance information. A good real life example is the increase of the number of women in prestigious philharmonic orchestras. Until recently, these orchestras were almost exclusively populated by men. What made the difference was the introduction of blind auditions. The judges could hear the candidates’ performance but their judgments could not be swayed by appearance, because they could not see the candidates.

So why are faces important?

AT: Faces play an extremely important role in our mental life, though not the role the physiognomists imagined. Newborns with virtually no visual experience prefer to look at faces than at other objects. After all, without caregivers we will not survive. In the first few months of life, faces are one of the most looked upon objects. This intensive experience with faces develops into an intricate network of brain regions dedicated to the processing of faces. This network supports our extraordinary face skills: recognizing others and detecting changes in their emotional and mental states. There are likely evolutionary adaptations in the human face—our bare skin, elongated eyes with white sclera, and prominent eyebrows—but these adaptations are about facilitating the reading of other minds, about communicating and coordinating our actions, not about inferring character.

Alexander Todorov is professor of psychology at Princeton University, where he is also affiliated with the Princeton Neuroscience Institute and the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. He is the author of Face Value: The Irresistible Influence of First Impressions.

Joel Brockner: Why Bosses Can Be Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

It is unnerving when people in authority positions behave inconsistently, especially when it comes to matters of morality. We call such people “Jekyll and Hyde characters,” based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella in which the same person behaved very morally in some situations and very immorally in others. Whereas the actual title of Stevenson’s work was the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, recent research suggests that Jekyll and Hyde bosses may not be so unusual. In fact, behaving morally like Dr. Jekyll may cause bosses to subsequently behave immorally like Mr. Hyde.

Researchers at Michigan State University (Szu Han Lin, Jingjing Ma, and Russell Johnson) asked employees to describe the behavior of their bosses from one day to the next. Bosses who behaved more ethically on the first day were more likely to behave abusively towards their subordinates the next day. For instance, the more that bosses on the first day did things like: 1) define success not just by results but also by the way that they are obtained, 2) set an example of how to do things the right way in terms of ethics, or 3) listen to what their employees had to say, the more likely they were on the next day to ridicule employees, to give employees the silent treatment, or to talk badly about employees behind their back. Does being in a position of authority predispose people to be hypocrites?

Not necessarily. Lin, Ma, and Johnson found two reasons why ethical leader behavior can, as they put it, “break bad.” One is moral licensing, which is based on the idea that people want to think of themselves and their behavior as ethical or moral. Having behaved ethically, people are somewhat paradoxically free to behave less ethically, either because their prior behavior gave them moral credits in their psychological ledgers or because it proved them to be fine, upstanding citizens.

A second explanation is based on Roy Baumeister’s notion of ego depletion, which assumes that people have a limited amount of self-control resources. Ego depletion refers to how people exerting self-control in one situation are less able to do so in a subsequent situation. Ego depletion helps to explain, for instance, why employees tend to make more ethical decisions earlier rather than later in the day. Throughout the day we are called upon to behave in ways that require self-control, such as not yelling at the driver who cut us off on the way to work, not having that second helping of delicious dessert at lunch, and not expressing negative emotions we may be feeling about bosses or co-workers who don’t seem to be behaving appropriately, in our view. Because we have fewer self-control resources later in the day, we are more susceptible to succumb to the temptation to behave unethically. In like fashion, bosses who behave ethically on one day (like Dr. Jekyll) may feel ego depleted from having exerted self-control, making them more prone to behave abusively towards their subordinates the next day (like Mr. Hyde).

Distinguishing between moral licensing and ego depletion is important, both conceptually and practically. At the conceptual level, a key difference between the two is whether the self is playing the role of object or subject. When people take themselves as the object of attention they want to see themselves and their behavior positively, for example, as ethical. As object (which William James called the me-self), self-processes consist of reflecting and evaluating. When operating as subject, the self engages in regulatory activity, in which people align their behavior with meaningful standards coming from within or from external sources; James called this the I-self. Moral licensing is a self-as-object process, in which people want to see themselves in certain positive ways (e.g., ethical), so that when they behave ethically they are free, at least temporarily, to behave in not so ethical ways. Ego depletion is a self-as-subject process, in which having exerted self-control in the service of regulation makes people, at least temporarily, less capable of doing so.

The founding father of social psychology, Kurt Lewin, famously proclaimed that, “There is nothing so practical as a good theory.” Accordingly, the distinction between moral licensing and ego depletion lends insight into the applied question of how to mitigate the tendency for ethical leader behavior to break bad. The moral licensing explanation suggests that one way to go is to make it more difficult for bosses to make self-attributions for their ethical behavior. For instance, suppose that an organization had very strong norms for its authorities to behave ethically. When authorities in such an organization behave ethically, they may attribute their behavior to the situation (strong organizational norms) rather than to themselves. In this example authorities are behaving morally but are not licensing themselves to behave abusively.

The ego depletion explanation suggests other ways to weaken the tendency for bosses’ ethical behavior to morph into abusiveness. For instance, much like giving exercised muscles a chance to rest and recover, ensuring that bosses are not constantly in the mode of exerting self-control may allow for their self-regulatory resources to be replenished. It also has been shown that people’s beliefs about how ego depleted they are influences their tendency to exert self-control, over and above how ego depleted they actually are. In a research study appropriately titled, “Ego depletion—is it all in your head?,” Veronika Job, Carol Dweck, and Gregory Walton found that people who believed they were less ego depleted after engaging in self-control were more likely to exert self-control in a subsequent activity. People differ in their beliefs about the consequences of exercising self-control. For some, having to exert self-control is thought to be de-energizing whereas for others it is not believed to be de-energizing. Bosses who believe that exerting self-control is not de-energizing may be less prone to behave abusively after exerting the self-control needed to behave ethically.

Whereas we have focused on how Dr. Jekyll can awaken Mr. Hyde, it also is entirely possible for Mr. Hyde to bring Dr. Jekyll to life. For instance, after behaving abusively bosses may want to make up for their bad feelings about themselves by behaving ethically. In any event, the case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde may not be so strange after all. We should not be surprised by inconsistency in our bosses’ moral behavior, once we consider how taking the high road may cause them to take the low road, and vice versa.

BrocknerJoel Brockner is the Phillip Hettleman Professor of Business at Columbia Business School. He is the author of The Process Matters: Engaging and Equipping People for Success.

This article was originally published on Psychology Today.

Joel Brockner: Are We More or Less Likely to Continue Behaving Morally?

by Joel Brockner

This post appears concurrently on Psychology Today.

Sometimes when we do something it causes us to continue in the same vein, or show a more extreme version of the behavior. The method of social influence known as “the foot-in-the-door” technique is based on this tendency. For instance, salespeople usually won’t ask you to make a big purchase, such as a yearlong subscription, right off the bat. Instead, they will first ask you to take a small step, such as to accept an introductory offer that will only last for a little while. Then, at a later date they will ask you to make the big purchase. Research shows that people are more likely to go along with a big request if they previously agreed to a small related request. A now-classic study suggested that people were willing to put a large, ugly sign in front of their homes saying, “Drive Carefully,” if, a few days before they simply signed their name to a petition supporting safe driving.

Other times, however, when people do something it makes them less likely to continue to behave that way. For example, if people made a charitable contribution to the United Way at work, they may feel less compelled to do so if the United Way came knocking on their door at home. In fact, if solicited at home they would probably say something to the effect of, “I gave at the office.” Research by Benoit Monin and Dale Miller on moral licensing shows a similar tendency. Once people do a good deed it makes them less likely to continue, at least for a while.

The notion of moral licensing assumes that most of us want to see ourselves as open-minded or generous. Engaging in behavior that is open-minded or generous allows us to see ourselves in these desirable ways, which ironically may free us up to behave close-mindedly or selfishly. Regarding open-mindedness, consider the evolution that has transpired in the management literature on the meaning of diversity. Originally, diversity referred to legally protected categories set forth in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was designed to prevent employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Over time, the definition of diversity has broadened, such that employers increasingly use non-legal dimensions – e.g., personality traits, culture, and communication style – as indicators of diversity. An example of a broad definition of diversity may be found on the website of Dow AgroSciences: “Diversity … extends well beyond descriptors such as race, gender, age or ethnicity; we are intentional about including aspects of diversity that address our differences in culture, background, experiences, perspectives, personal and work style.” Modupe Akinola and her colleagues recently discovered that law firms that adopted broader definitions of diversity had fewer women and minorities in their employee base. Thus, behaving open-mindedly (adopting a broad definition of diversity) was associated with law firms acting close-mindedly towards women and minorities.

Regarding generosity, studies have shown that people’s willingness to donate to a charitable cause is reduced if, beforehand, they wrote a short story about themselves using morally positive words (e.g., fair, kind) than if they wrote a short story about themselves using morally negative words (selfish, mean). The same thing happened if people simply thought about an instance in which they behaved morally rather than immorally. When people’s self-image of being moral is top of mind, they feel licensed to behave in less than moral ways.

So, on the one hand, there is evidence that behaving in a certain way or even thinking about those behaviors causes people to do more of the same. On the other hand, there is evidence that prior acts (or reflecting on prior acts) of morality may make people less likely to behave consistently with their past actions. What makes it go one way rather than the other? One watershed factor is how people think about or construe their behavior. All behavior can be construed in abstract ways or in concrete ways. Abstract construals reflect the “forest,” which refers to the central or defining feature of a behavior. Concrete construals reflect the “trees,” which refers to the specific details of a behavior. Abstract construals focus on the why or deeper meaning of behavior whereas concrete construals focus on the details of how the behavior was enacted. For instance, “developing a procedure” may be construed abstractly as increasing work efficiency or concretely as writing down step-by-step instructions. “Contributing to charity” may be construed abstractly as doing the right thing or concretely as writing a check.

When people construe their behavior abstractly they see it as reflective of their values, their identity, in short, of themselves. When people engage in behavior perceived to reflect themselves it induces them to show more of the same. However, when the same behavior is construed concretely, it is seen as less relevant to who they are. A moral act viewed concretely provides evidence to people that they are moving in the direction of being a moral person, thereby freeing them up subsequently to succumb to more selfish desires. Supporting this reasoning, Paul Conway and Johanna Sheetz showed that when people viewed their acts of morality abstractly they continued to behave morally whereas when they viewed those same behaviors concretely they subsequently behaved more selfishly.

Not only is it intriguing that moral behavior can foster more of the same or less, but also it is practically important to consider when behaving morally will have one effect rather than the other. People in authority positions, such as parents, teachers, and managers, typically want those over whom they have authority to behave morally over the longer haul. This may happen when children, students, and employees construe their acts of morality abstractly rather than concretely. Moreover, authorities have at their disposal a variety of ways to bring about abstract construals, such as: (1) encouraging people to think about why they are engaging in a given behavior rather than how they are doing so, (2) getting people to think categorically (e.g., by asking questions such as, “Downsizing is an example of what?”) rather than in terms of examples (“What is an example of organizational change?”), and (3) thinking about their behavior from the vantage point of greater psychological distance; for instance, when people think about how their extra efforts to benefit the organization will pay off over the long-term, they may be more likely to engage in such activities consistently than if they merely thought about the more immediate benefits.

In The Process Matters, I emphasize that even small differences in how people are treated by authorities can have a big impact on what they think, feel, and do. Here, I am raising a related point: a subtle difference in how people think about their behavior dictates whether their expressions of morality will beget more or less.

Joel Brockner is the Phillip Hettleman Professor of Business at the Columbia Business School. He is the author of A Contemporary Look at Organizational Justice: Multiplying Insult Times Injury and Self-Esteem at Work, and the coauthor of Entrapment in Escalating Conflicts.


Joel Brockner on “bad process” in the Yahoo layoffs

Many feel that upper management in some of the most prominent companies has lost touch with how to care for employees on every rung of the ladder.  In his book The Process Matters: Engaging and Equipping People for Success, Joel Brockner addresses managers who want to promote a high-quality work environment for employees. Today he writes about the problem of management manipulation in the case of Yahoo’s recent, unexpected rash of layoffs. Brockner insists that it was the method used by management rather than the action of firing the employees that lead to such an outcry.

Yahoo Lawsuits Begin Over Management Manipulation

by Joel Brockner

Process matters jacketYahoo has been going through tough times so we shouldn’t be surprised to hear, as the New York Times recently reported that, “More than one-third of the company’s work force has left voluntarily or involuntarily over the last year.” It also comes as little surprise that among the involuntarily departed, some are suing for wrongful termination. It’s tempting to chalk up the negative reactions of former employees to economic considerations. After all, when people’s livelihood is at stake, it’s understandable for them to be looking elsewhere or for giving their former employers hell to pay.

However, many studies show that it’s not simply decisions that are economically unfavorable that are causing the upset. Rather, the combination of economically tough decisions and people’s perceptions of the decisions being handled poorly are putting them over the edge. Those filing suit at Yahoo claim that the way in which the layoffs were implemented was unfair, in several respects. First, the layoffs allegedly violated both state and Federal law which requires 60 days advance notice. Furthermore, there was considerable consternation about how it was decided which employees would be laid off and which would remain. On paper, it is hard to argue with Yahoo’s method: based on their Quarterly Performance Review (QPR), those people who received the least favorable evaluations were the ones targeted for dismissal.

The problem, however, is not with making layoff decisions on the basis of (de)merit, but rather, with people’s perceptions of the way in which the QPR was done. According to the New York Times, “The Q.P.R. process was opaque and the employees did not know who was making the final decisions, what numbers were being assigned by whom along the way, or why those numbers were being changed,” the lawsuit says. “This manipulation of the Q.P.R. process permitted employment decisions, including terminations, to be made on the basis of personal biases and stereotyping.”

I suppose we also shouldn’t be terribly surprised to hear that the combination of a bad outcome and a bad process makes people very upset. After all, there is an expression in everyday life that captures such a state of affairs: “Adding insult to injury.” People feel injured by the bad outcome, and they are insulted by the way in which it was carried out. However, one thing we are learning from research and experience is that the expression, “adding insult to injury” doesn’t do justice to how aggrieved people feel when they find themselves in that situation. In mathematical terms, the expression, “multiplying insult times injury” is more like it. This is why I advise people in authority positions (executives, as well as teachers and parents) that whenever they have to make the tough decisions they should do whatever they can to ensure that the process for making and carrying them out is as high-quality as possible. This is not to say that that those on the receiving end will be happy; grudging acceptance comes closer to how most people will take it. But, grudging acceptance is a lot better than what authorities are likely to encounter when those on the receiving end feel like they have had the injury of an unfavorable outcome multiplied by the insult of an unfair or otherwise flawed process.

So, the Yahoos of the world who are faced with having to be the bearers of bad news have a choice. By investing in a well-handled process, they can minimize (read: not eliminate) the ire that translates into actions like lawsuits. Alternatively, by ignoring the quality of the process, they are at peril for more lawsuits or other expressions of discontent. Over and above the ethical imperative of handling the process well, there is an economic one: would you rather spend resources needed to handle the process well, or the far greater resources you are likely to need to defend yourself in a court of law?

Joel Brockner
 is the Phillip Hettleman Professor of Business at the Columbia Business School. He is the author of A Contemporary Look at Organizational Justice: Multiplying Insult Times Injury and Self-Esteem at Work, and the coauthor of Entrapment in Escalating Conflicts. His most recent book is The Process Matters: Engaging and Equipping People for Success.

New video trailer for The Secret of Our Success by Joe Henrich

Henrich jacketThe premise of Survivor, in which 16 previously unacquainted humans were routinely abandoned in forbidding locations to brave the elements, was no doubt wildly popular because of the simple fact that we humans, on our own, are virtually helpless. We aren’t particularly adept at building shelter, fending off predatory animals, and the thought of having to procure a meal with nothing but our bare hands and our wits is enough to make many of us run for our nearest Whole Foods. How on earth have we managed to dominate the globe when we can’t survive in the wild? As Joseph Henrich points out, human groups are far less hopeless than lone individuals, and our collective brains have produced ingenious technologies, sophisticated languages, and complex institutions that have not only allowed us to inhabit diverse environments, but have actually shaped biology. Check out the trailer for his new book, The Secret of our Success: How Culture is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating our Species, and Making Us Smarter.




Are people getting better? An interview with Webb Keane on ETHICAL LIFE

From inner city America to the Inuit Arctic, from evangelical Christians to ardent feminists, our increasingly diverse and global society means, as Webb Keane puts it, that “everyone’s aware that their values aren’t the only ones in town.” How then, does one exercise the distinctly human tendency to take an ethical stance toward oneself and everyone else? Which values can be said to be universal? Is it innately human to apply ethics, or is it strictly a product of one’s cultural and historical context? Keane, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan, took some time to answer questions about his new book, Ethical Life: Its Natural and Social Histories.

Keane jacketWhat’s new about Ethical Life?

WK: This book brings together research findings across a wide range of fields that rarely communicate with one another. So one thing that’s new is the wide net it casts. It takes in developmental psychology, the microsociology of conversation, ethnographies carried out with everyone from inner city crack dealers and to hunters in the rain forest, and histories of feminism, evangelical religion, and communist revolution. Along the way, it brings philosophers into the conversation, and takes occasional sideglances to cognitive science and neuroscience. Usually when a book covers so much territory, it tries to do one of two things. One approach is to give us a kind of encyclopedia: there’s this, and this, and this. Another is to claim there’s one big explanation, like for example, it all boils down to your DNA. Well this book takes a different tack. It says that each of these different angles on human ethics tells us something that can’t be reduced to, or explained by, the others. But none of them are complete in themselves. So the book explores the borderlands where they meet each other. For instance, psychology shows us that the impulse to seek out other people’s intentions is shared by all humans, and is very deep; philosophy tells us why intention-reading is essential to ethical judgments; ethnography explains why some communities will emphasize intention-reading while others suppress it; and history traces out how it comes to be that one society, at one point in time, ends up finding intentionality fascinating, while another takes it to be a source of anxiety—and what happens when people actively try to change their own ethical system.

Can you explain the title?

WK: I use the term ethical “life” because I think it’s important that ethics isn’t just a set of rules or ideas that you consult from time to time. It’s built into the very flow of everyday life. It’s part of your emotional equipment, your sense of self, and of your ability to have relations to other people, as well as to the words and habits and institutions you get from living in a particular society at a particular time. Notice that this list ranges across all the fields I’ve mentioned: psychology, social interaction, history. “Ethical life” means that an ethics saturates even quite ordinary activities.

Some people say that the foundation for ethics and morality is religion. Isn’t this so?

WK: It follows from the proposition that ethics is built into ordinary life that it’s not based on religion as such. Anthropologist will tell you that even very traditional religious communities always have their village atheists, yet the village atheist also participates in ethical life. And of course many philosophical systems have tried to base ethics on non-religious principles like reason. Still, it’s also true that religions have played a huge role in the development of ethical systems. One chapter of the book looks at examples from Christianity and Islam to show how they construct and inculcate a very distinctive style of morality. But they do so by drawing on raw materials that are already part of everyday life, and then transforming them in certain characteristic ways.

But at least we can say ethics is the specialty of philosophers and theologians, so why would an anthropologist be talking about this?

WK: Anthropologists have two mandates. One is to understand people as they actually are—warts and all–and not as we think they should be, which can sometimes put us in the company of some pretty nasty characters. The second mandate is to begin by trying to see people from their own points of view. Our job doesn’t stop there, but making that our starting point means we have to grapple with ethical intuitions that we may find foreign or even repugnant. As I see it, the traditional role of the philosopher or theologian is not to carry out empirical research to discover what ethical life actually is, but rather to say something about what it should be, and to justify that view. Now certainly there are many philosophers and theologians who are in deep conversation with social scientists, and vice versa—I hope you can see this dialogue going on in my book–but most of us end up observing that division of labor, and work at different sides of the questions. And one of the things this book says, with which many philosophers and theologians may disagree, is that there’s no guarantee that we can find a single set of unifying principles that everyone will agree to, or that history is leading us to converge on a shared ethics.

Is it human nature to be ethical?

WK: Yes and no. One the one hand, ethical life is a dimension of ordinary human existence across the board. It draws on certain capacities and propensities that all children develop early in life, and that all societies respond to and develop in one way or another. The book stresses the very basic elements of ethics, like seeing yourself from your interlocutor’s perspective or having a sense of reciprocity and fairness, which are features of life everywhere. On the other hand, this book also argues that these basics do not amount to a full-fledged ethics until people have some way of recognizing that that’s what they are: that there’s something ethical at stake. And this depends on all sorts of social dynamics which necessarily vary from time to time and place to place. They have a history. Moreover, every community has some values which are likely to conflict with one another, such as freedom and equality, or justice and charity. The balance between them is likely to shift from one context to another. Which is one reason why we’re not likely to end up with a single set of shared ethical principles.

Well, if ethics isn’t just a universal set of rules, is the end result ethical relativism?

WK: The short answer is “no.” This is the other side of the coin in the answer to the previous question: there are limits to how far any ethical system can ignore or go beyond the raw materials with which it’s working. Simply in order to make sense of one another, people have to act in ways that others can interpret, and there are cognitive, linguistic, and sociological constraints on this. Moreover, just recognizing that other people have very different moral intuitions doesn’t exempt me from having certain commitments. If I’m going to play soccer, I have to care about the outcome even if I’m aware that there are people out there who don’t know or care about soccer (but, say, who do care about basketball). But no amount of knowledge about the different games is going to give me an objective basis for declaring that the game I’m playing is the one that should really matter. We can’t expect our scientific knowledge about ethics to provide us with a superior position from which to we can prove to everyone else that our ethical intuitions are the correct ones.

The last section of your book is about historical change. Many of us would like to know, are people getting better?

WK: That really depends on what yardstick you want to use to measure progress. On the one hand, it’s clear that people around the world are more and more likely to have dealings with others from different backgrounds, and to see some connection to people who aren’t right next door. So two things follow. First, everyone’s aware that their values aren’t the only ones in town. And second, the potential scope of their ethical concern is expanding. Alongside this is the rise of universalizing ideals, like the concept of human rights. On the other hand, this doesn’t necessarily mean people are becoming more cosmopolitan—sometimes they just circle the wagons and double down on racial, national, or religious exclusiveness, insisting that some people are not due objects of my ethical concern. So, again, I don’t think we’re going to find any guarantees out there. But it does look like the friction generated when different ethical worlds rub up against one another can charge up new ethical ideas and provoke us to make new discoveries about ourselves.

Webb Keane is the George Herbert Mead Collegiate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan. He is the author of Christian Moderns: Freedom and Fetish in the Mission Encounter and Signs of Recognition: Powers and Hazards of Representation in an Indonesian Society.

New Brain & Cognitive Science Catalog

We invite you to scroll through the 2016 Brain & Cognitive Science catalog below.

Phishing for PhoolsDon’t miss Phishing for Phools! Nobel Prize-winning economists George A. Akerlof and Robert J. Shiller challenge the traditional idea that the free market is inherently benign and show us through numerous stories how sellers can manipulate and deceive us.



ThriveIn Thrive, Richard Layard and David M. Clark argue that the economic and social advantages of investing in modern psychological therapies more than make up for the cost, and that we cannot afford to ignore an issue that affects at least 20% of people in developed countries.



future of the brainThe Future of the Brain, edited by Gary Marcus and Jeremy Freeman, is a collection of essays that explore the exciting advances that will allow us to understand the brain as we never have before.




Secret of our SuccessJoseph Henrich makes the case that our success as a species can be attributed to our ability to socially connect with each other and benefit from a collective intelligence in The Secret of Our Success.




For these and many more titles in cognitive science, see our catalog above! And be sure to subscribe to our newsletter to get 30% off on select titles through November 13, 2015.

Fall Sale

Finally, if you’ll be attending the Society for Neuroscience Annual Meeting in Chicago from October 17-21, visit us at booth 126. You can also join the conversation on Twitter using #SfN15!

Paul Krugman hosting free discussion at Cooper Union with authors of THRIVE

Thrive jacketTonight, Nobel-prize-winning economist Paul Krugman will host a free public discussion at Cooper Union with Richard Layard & David M. Clark, co-authors of Thrive: How Better Mental Health Care Transforms Lives and Saves Money. Richard Layard discussed the book with Tom Keene on Bloomberg Surveillance here, and both authors answered some questions on mental health policy for the PUP blog here.

Mental illness is a leading cause of suffering in the modern world. In sheer numbers, it afflicts at least 20 percent of people in developed countries. It reduces life expectancy as much as smoking does, accounts for nearly half of all disability claims, is behind half of all worker sick days, and affects educational achievement and income. There are effective tools for alleviating mental illness, but most sufferers remain untreated or undertreated. What should be done to change this? In Thrive, Richard Layard and David Clark argue for fresh policy approaches to how we think about and deal with mental illness, and they explore effective solutions to its miseries and injustices.

Richard Layard is one of the world’s leading labor economists and a member of the House of Lords. He is the author of Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, which has been translated into twenty languages.

David M. Clark is professor of psychology at the University of Oxford. Layard and Clark were the main drivers behind the UK’s Improving Access to Psychological Therapies program.

Paul Krugman is an author and economist who teaches at Princeton, the London School of Economics and elsewhere. He won the 2008 Nobel Prize in economics. He is also an Op-Ed columnist for the New York Times.

September 29, 2015 @ 6:30 pm – 9:30 pm
The Great Hall
Foundation Building
7 E 7th St, New York, NY 10003

Please RSVP here.